The work of Gailan Ngan makes fated connections, not in any linear way, but poetically, by crafting associations between herself, the objects she collects, and the material she uses. This exhibition features hand-built sculptures that, while simply expressed, broadly explore shape, surface treatment, and colour. To further complicate and enrich finished work, industry by-products, organic and processed objects, and studio experiments are included, each contributing to an extended narrative of material that is influenced by the historically resource-rich West Coast where Ngan lives and works. Installations operate as momentary end points or in situ conversations around a constellation of convergent and intersecting experiences that entwine her history to larger ecological events or industrial narratives.
Blacks, Greys, Chromes gathers a series of large ink drawings, a lengthy string of beads, and a substantial plinth displaying Random Objects Of Material. While this installation introduces Ngan’s refined language of shape, size, and material, it also establishes a consistent personal narrative embedded in this assembled collection. The ink drawings are explorations of the way ink moves across paper, and the ink, paper, and brushes used to create this work were all inherited supplies from her late father. In fact, the making of these drawings triggered foggy memories of painting tutorials she received from her father as a young child. A counterweight to this wall of circular gestures is a long string of unfired beads, each made by squeezing clay to make an impression of the inside of the artist’s clenched fist. Strung together, these beads express the unending emotional response Ngan has to the burden and responsibility of material consumption and disposal.
Centered in the same gallery is a large plinth on which the collection Random Objects Of Material is displayed. These objects are Ngan’s reference points, her unconventional archive, a way to make compelling associations between things that initially appear to have no connection. They also serve as speculative propositions for the artist, a way to wonder if narrative is embedded in form and, if so, how these stories are revealed. Some objects focus on inheritance, such as a cutting taken from a wall-gripping cactus that originally came from the artist’s father’s village in China, or an almost empty uranium jar from her father’s studio—each item complicates the artist’s concerns around accountability and legacy. Other objects are studio experiments, like the hand-formed trompe l’oeil blackberries made from black clay rich in manganese or a blurry pinhole photo. Each of these is an attempt to capture the true essence of a thing, person, or moment. Some objects are found, purchased, or gifted, like the beaver-hewn sticks or a creosote-soaked fir paver from a Vancouver street. While these wooden objects both started out as trees, it is their divergent paths as material implicated in complex eco- and industrial systems, and their subsequent value as remnants of these wild and cultivated practices, that have landed them in Ngan’s collection.
The second gallery presents a series of sculptures Ngan calls “Blobs”: hand built ceramic and 3-D printed forms that are consistently irregular. Less interested in their specific shapes, it is the surface treatment and the relationship between the forms that the artist considers as a central concern. Ngan refers to the glazing process as painting; each form serves as a blank canvas onto which she applies pigments and other surface-altering chemicals and techniques. Ngan is candid about this method being incredibly intuitive, and she allows each form to dictate the specifics of colour, the weight of a line, or the size and shape of other decorative elements. This way of working is also technically slow, as it often takes multiple firings to achieve the desired result. Working in ceramics is notoriously unpredictable, as slight shifts in clay composition, glaze recipes, and fluctuations in kiln temperature can change the shape, colour, and even stability of the work, and in this way the artist is in fact removed from the process. How a work emerges from the kiln is always a surprise, with material and physical factors—and a little luck—ultimately determining the final product.
In cutting off a slab of fresh clay or weighing out metal oxides to make specific slip or glaze colours, Ngan is mindful of the larger costs and impact that the extraction of these natural resources has had on the environment. While uneasy with how much of her practice relies on industrially produced materials, she sees paying close attention to these complex, overlapping, and coincidental narratives as an opportunity to alter the course of her practice. The outcome of these choices, while undetermined and yet unknown, is more than anything a by-product of her own curiosity.
This exhibition was generously supported in-part by Carvel Creative.